Fuji Rock Festival celebrates 20 years

Mark Jarnes

Special to The Japan Times

Fans mark their turf in front of the main Green Stage at Fuji Rock Festival in 2013. The event takes place annually in Niigata Prefecture. | JAMES HADFIELD

Masahiro Hidaka held the inaugural Fuji Rock Festival in 1997 close to its namesake mountain where it was hit by a devastating typhoon. Undeterred, he moved the event farther north and it has been one of the highlights of Japan’s music calendar ever since

Who doesn’t love an anniversary? For couples it’s about rekindling moments of first love, for many nations it’s about marking a significant moment in history. Anniversaries are, for the most part, true celebrations.

“I hate anniversaries,” says Masahiro Hidaka, the president of Smash Japan and founder of the Fuji Rock Festival, which is marking its 20th anniversary this year. “I hate those kinds of things, so I didn’t want that on any of the banners. Everyone on the team was saying, ‘20 years! 20 years!’ But I didn’t care for any of that. It was only after a month or so of their insistence that I broke and said, ‘Fine, let’s do the whole 20th anniversary thing then.’?”

And so it was decided that Japan’s premier music festival would officially celebrate its 20th birthday. There’s good reason to: Through the years Fuji Rock has hosted everyone from Oasis to Bjork to Eminem. This year’s lineup — a nod to the very first roster — features acts who were at the inaugural bash.

“We wanted to have acts that played at the first Fuji Rock (in 1997) perform this year, which is why we asked for the (Red Hot) Chili Peppers,” Hidaka says. “When I first heard them over two decades ago, I thought that this was the music of the future — this was the pinnacle of the rock world. I’m good friends with all of the members. And Beck will be back, too.”

Since Fuji Rock began other big festivals have sprung up across the country and that means more competition when it comes to snagging acts. Hidaka mentions that an even bigger issue is the vast number of bookings that the organizers toil over in the runup to each installment (223 acts are set to perform this year). Still, with the amount of choice, Hidaka realizes he can’t fully please every fan.

“You can’t make everyone happy — and I don’t want to regret any money-driven choices — so we choose the lineup based on what we think is good,” he says. “You can call it ‘ego’ if you want.”

It may have been his self-confidence that led Hidaka to curate a FRF 20th Special, which will happen Saturday night after Beck’s headlining set on the Green Stage, the biggest stage at the festival with a capacity of 40,000.

“Many people in Japan don’t know the music from the swing and jazz era, so I wanted to hold a big, West-meets-East swing session led by Glenn Miller,” he says excitedly. Hidaka chose all of the songs for the set, as well as those for Friday’s Route 17 Rock ’n’ Roll Orchestra set. “Saturday will end off with Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade.’ I spend my evenings drinking and thinking about these things.”

It doesn’t always rain at Fuji Rock Festival, but in case it does it’s best to be prepared. And where rain goes, mud follows. | ALEXIS WUILLAUME

‘We are a Japanese festival’

One of Fuji Rock’s main draws has been its emphasis on overseas acts, which has in the past included smaller performers such as Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke or the Afro-Caribbean styles of Los Guanches in addition to the latest British rock titan. However, Fuji Rock’s core audience has recently voiced concern over what they see as a rise of domestic acts on the lineup, worried that organizers may be pandering to an increasingly mainstream Japanese music fan. Indeed, this year’s event features wolf-masked rockers Man With A Mission, kawaii (cute) metal idols Babymetal and rising city pop heroes Suchmos. Hidaka brushes aside any such anxiety.

“We are a Japanese festival. Blankey Jet City and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant have both headlined in the past,” Hidaka states. “It’s my dream to have a local band headlining the Green Stage again, but this year there aren’t as many Japanese bands in the lineup compared to 2015 (One OK Rock, Gen Hoshino, Sheena Ringo). Unfortunately, there aren’t enough truly great bands in Japan right now!”

Nonetheless, the 2016 program — on both the domestic and international fronts — is an impressive one. Aside from the Chili Peppers and Beck, Icelandic trio Sigur Ros will take the final main slot at the Green Stage on Friday, whereas the second biggest area, the White Stage, will host the tech-house-inclined pop tunes of Disclosure, math rock of Battles and the formidable beats of Squarepusher. Pop enthusiasts may struggle to find space in the Red Marquee tent for U.K.-based Years & Years and Jack Garratt, while jazz fans will be flocking to see Robert Glasper Experiment. Dance music connoisseurs will be happy to see house legends Soichi Terada and DJ Harvey play in succession on Sunday night. The J-music menu will be spearheaded by festival faves Ken Yokoyama, Ego-Wrappin’ and Bo Ningen, as well as debut sets from singer-songwriter NakamuraEmi and Radwimps vocalist Yojiro Noda, under his illion moniker.

When it comes to plans for the future, Masahiro Hidaka envisions a music festival that three generations of a family could attend. | JAMES HADFIELD

Rock to the future

Regardless of who headlines the event, fans of the festival have learned that a lot of the magic comes from the culture of Fuji Rock. Smaller stages are popular with the faithful, the all-night Palace of Wonder area feels like the Cantina bar from “Star Wars” and, of course, there’s the venue itself. Only the first edition of the event was held near its namesake mountain. It was also where a typhoon hit, almost destroying the stage and forcing the Chili Peppers to cut their set short to 45 minutes. The following year, Hidaka moved the festival to Naeba Ski Resort, nestled in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture. It’s a lush, if rainy, area and makes for a welcome getaway from the city in summer.

“I love Naeba, we’re not thinking to move at all,” Hidaka affirms. “I wish we had more space though. We’re at our limit now.”

With 20 years of bookings and troubleshooting under his belt, Hidaka still has fond memories of Fuji Rock’s debut.

“I guess the first one was the most special for me,” he shares. “A lot of unexpected things happened during that one. Also, in the runup, there was a lot of negotiation — around three or four years of it — but the most important thing was to have the will to just do it.”

His persistence has led to the event becoming Japan’s premier outdoor music gathering, with many punters who made the trek out to the debut still visiting the festival 20 years on.

“Sure, the average age is going up,” Hidaka says. “One of my dreams is to have three generations of family coming to the festival, and enjoying — or criticizing — the music they like with each other.”

As Fuji Rock enters its 20s, however, what does Hidaka have in store for future generations of fans?

“I don’t have a clue!” he exclaims with a smile. “Right now, I can’t even think about next year, let alone 10, 20 years down the line. My life philosophy is to quickly forget the past, and only think about what’s in front of me. After this year’s festival ends, then I’ll start thinking about next year.”

Fuji Rock Festival takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture on July 22, 23 and 24. For more information, visit www.fujirockfesitval.com.

Fuji Rock Festival founder Masahiro Hidaka says he was originally concerned nobody would turn up to his outdoor concert. Twenty years later, however, it’s clear his efforts were worth it. | DAN SZPARA

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